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Tomasz P. Szynalski

Who are you?

My full name is Tomasz P. Szynalski. On this website, I typically go by Tom. I live in Wroclaw, Poland.

I have a Master’s Degree from the Wroclaw University of Technology. I was a laureate of two nationwide English competitions in Poland (1998 and 2003) and a member of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL). My work has appeared in publications by Cambridge University Press and Pearson Education.

Since 1998, I have worked as an English-Polish translator, English teacher and independent Web publisher/developer. In 2000, I started this website, together with Michal Ryszard Wojcik. Other than Antimoon, I have developed several websites, the most popular of which are TypeIt, an awesome online keyboard for typing special characters (see, for example: IPA phonetic keyboard, French keyboard, Russian keyboard, etc.), and Online Tone Generator, a handy Web widget for generating audio tones. I also have a blog. Remember blogs?

How did you learn English?

1. The beginnings

I started learning English when I was 6 years old. For 8 years I learned English the way everybody does — by going to English classes. It was awfully ineffective. I did everything that the teachers told me to do: I took notes, I did the homework assignments, everything. But I didn’t get any results. At least, no impressive results. I was always one of the best students in the class — still, reading English texts took me a long time, I made lots of mistakes when writing, my pronunciation was bad, and I could only speak English very slowly. Eight years of sacrifices, and these were the results...

screenshot from Monkey Island 2
Adventure games like Monkey Island 2 were my only source of input in elementary school. I had to understand at least some English to progress in the game.

Things got a little better because of... computer games. When my father finally bought me my first PC in 1991, I started playing lots of adventure games. I especially loved LucasArts games, such as Indiana Jones series, the Monkey Island series, and Day of the Tentacle. While playing these games, I would read a lot of English sentences and after some time I gained a little “grammar intuition”.

I first realized this when I took part in an English contest for elementary school students. As I looked at the grammar questions, I noticed that I could sometimes tell the right answer just because it sounded good and the other answers sounded bad to me. I also noticed that I could remember phrases from games that I had played. For example, when I looked at a question about the present perfect tense, I would remember a phrase with the present perfect tense that I had seen in a game. For the first time, I thought that maybe you don’t need a teacher to explain grammar to you; maybe you can just “absorb it” by reading in English. Was it possible that adventure games had taught me more than English classes?

2. I get motivated and learn to learn on my own

I would love to tell you that I started to learn English seriously because I wanted to improve myself, communicate with the world, or even get good grades and a well-paying job. In the beginning, my motivation was far more evil: it was my competitive spirit.

In 1993, I got into the best high school in Wroclaw. It was a special program with a lot of English classes and certain classes (like math and physics) taught in English. I owe a lot to the people I met there, both students and teachers. My first two years in high school were very important for my English. At first, I thought I would do well without any serious effort. After all, I had gotten the highest score in class on the initial placement test and, until then, had been the top student in every English class that I had attended.

But then I noticed that there were two other guys — Wojtek and Michal (who later became my partner at Antimoon) — who were quite impressive. Wojtek had great American pronunciation and Michal’s English seemed completely free of errors. What’s more, every time I heard them speak, they seemed to have a bigger vocabulary.

I was not a friendly admirer of their progress. In fact, I hated what was happening. I hated the possibility that another student could be better at English than me. I had been attending English lessons since I was 6 years old, dammit, and I was not going to let someone get the upper hand on me. It was clear to me that I needed to put in some serious work, or else I would be left behind.

sample page from the Oxford Pocket Learner’s Dictionary
The Oxford Pocket Learner’s Dictionary — my first English-English dictionary.

I began to pay more attention to the advice of my English teacher, Mr Janusz Laskosz. I bought a proper English-English dictionary and learned to read the phonetic transcriptions in it. At home, I started to practice pronouncing English words, taking care to capture the difference between similar words like full and fool. I was getting better and better at pronouncing English vowels like æ (the vowel in cat) and ə (the first sound in away, also known as schwa).

Despite the fact that British pronunciation is the de facto standard in Polish schools, Wojtek, Michal and I all decided to study American pronunciation. It was fun to go against the grain and American English offered a better choice of interesting content, such as TV shows and movies. I started listening to recordings (such as the Shaggy Dog Stories that we got from Mr Laskosz) and imitating the phrases I would hear. Every day, after school, I watched American TV (e.g. CNN International, Cartoon Network). As a result, I was getting better and better at understanding spoken English. I was also picking up some words and phrases that I could use in my own sentences.

Our high school was unusual in that it had a few American teachers. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity as much as I could. I would come up to them between classes and start conversations about everyday things. Sometimes, when there was poor discipline in class, I would spend the entire 45 minutes talking to the teacher, while my classmates talked to each other. When I spoke, I made sure to use simple grammar to avoid mistakes.

After 2 or 3 months of this, I was no longer afraid to open my mouth. Sure, I often had problems finding the right word, I never used conditionals, the past perfect tense or as if clauses, and my writing skills were unacceptable (writing requires a much better vocabulary than speaking). But I could usually express my basic meaning with few mistakes and pretty good pronunciation, even if I sounded like a little kid.

It was at this time that my motivations began to change. The feeling of competition was still there, but now I was also motivated because I was enjoying my own progress and the possibilities that it had opened for me. It is so much fun to pronounce a word just like an American, to use a newly learned phrase, or to watch TV in a foreign language and understand it!

3. I boost my English with reading and SuperMemo

One of my most important moments in high school was when I overheard Wojtek and Michal talking about a computer program that they used to learn English words. The program was called SuperMemo. “I knew they had some sort of trick for memorizing vocabulary”, I thought. “That’s why they are always full of advanced words like appalled and streamline!” Naturally, I got very interested in their “secret weapon”. But my motivation was too small. If you wanted to use SuperMemo, you had to spend a lot of time copying words, phonetic transcriptions and example sentences from the dictionary into your computer. I gave the program a try, but I could never get down to using it seriously.

first page from 'The Andromeda Strain'
First page from The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, one of the first books I read in English.

During the summer vacation of 1994, I started reading books in English, mostly thrillers and sci-fi novels. This was largely because of the encouragement of Mr Laskosz and the example of Michal and Wojtek. It was an exciting new experience for me. A year before, I didn’t even realize that it was possible for me — a fresh high school student — to read actual English literature in the original like somebody from the US or Britain. And now here I was, reading novels in English and enjoying them, to the disbelief of my parents!

I quickly found out that written English was completely different from the English I would hear on TV or from native speakers. Authors would write things like “he would be forced to wipe them frequently using a stubby gloved finger” or “the final scurrying about had reached an almost unbearable frenzy”. I would encounter a lot of new words, and I had terrible problems memorizing them. I often had to look up the same word many times, which irritated me. I realized I needed a way to remember all this vocabulary.

screenshot of SuperMemo for DOS
I spent thousands of hours in front of this screen. You can see I even made a DOS text-mode font with phonetic symbols.

In February 1995, I finally started my first SuperMemo collection with English vocabulary. It was a breakthrough for me. I started adding lots of words from the books that I read. Every day, I would come back from school, and then sit for an hour or two and add new words to my collection. SuperMemo worked so well that, when I added 30 new words, I knew I would remember those 30 words in a month. It was like glue — everything stuck in my memory! I was memorizing lots of new things and almost never forgetting any of them, so my knowledge was always growing and never shrinking. After two years, my collection had 3,000 English words with pronunciations and example sentences. (More about my 9-year experience with SuperMemo)

Because of all the reading and SuperMemo, my vocabulary was no longer my weakness — it was my strength. It became very hard for my teachers (non-native English speakers) to surprise me with a new word. My classmates would often ask English questions of me or Michal, because they knew they would get a better answer from us than from the teacher. I even noticed some of my teachers were getting jealous!

4. I achieve writing and speaking fluency

In late 1995, I got on the Internet. Two or three times a week, after my classes, I would go to a small computer lab at the chemistry department of the local university to surf the Net. I got my own e-mail account and started writing e-mail in English. I loved to build error-free English sentences, especially with advanced vocabulary and grammar structures. However, in those early days of the Internet, my choices were limited. Almost none of my friends had e-mail accounts. Only two years later, when dial-up access became widely available in Poland, did I persuade Michal to get online and we started to write to each other in English.

Around 1997, Michal and I decided to use only English to communicate. We must have spent thousands of hours talking to each other in English between school classes, attracting the puzzled looks of teachers and classmates. Speaking in English quickly became so natural that we forgot what it was like to speak Polish to each other. The decision to switch to English required some courage, but it was just what I needed at the time. I already had good vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. What I needed was fluency — the ability to speak English on any topic, without hesitation.

And it worked. In 1998, I took part in a prestigious, nationwide English competition for high school students. I was 7th in the country, out of 25,000 participants. Two years later, I easily got first place in a smaller contest for students of technical universities.

How is your English today?

Today, English is no longer the focus of my attention. It is more like an everyday tool, like a “second native language”. Over 90% of my e-mail is written in English. I regularly visit 15-20 websites in English and only a few websites in Polish. I rarely have to use a dictionary and when I speak, I sound very much like an American. (Sometimes even Americans can’t tell the difference.)

What has English given you?

  • With English, I can learn more about anything I’m interested in. I can read technical articles on programming. I can listen to video lectures by great thinkers. I can watch documentaries on photography. I can find better information about fixing my computer, my health problems, where to go on vacation, which products to buy, etc. It’s ridiculous how limited the Internet is for someone who doesn’t understand English.
  • covers of the English and Polish editions of 'C Primer Plus'
    I translated C Primer Plus, a very good book on the C programming language.
    I can write for the whole world, not just the people in my country. My articles and forum posts can be helpful to the whole global community.
  • I can communicate with virtually all educated people in the world. I have corresponded with world-class experts in science, philosophy and technical fields like software development.
  • I get excellent entertainment that is unavailable or hard to get in Polish — e.g. Futurama, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Office, Northern Exposure, funny clips on YouTube, websites like Reddit and The Onion, etc. I often wonder how much great stuff many of my Polish friends are missing.
  • I have more fun watching movies and playing computer games. Translations are often unavailable, shortened (for time/space reasons) or incorrect. I see poor translations all the time, even on professionally produced DVDs. Whenever I’m forced to watch an English-language movie in the Polish version, I know I am missing 5-10% of the content.
  • I can go to any English-speaking country and communicate easily. During my trips to England and America I was taken for a native speaker many times. It felt great!
  • I can make money with English. I’ve translated two IT books (including C Primer Plus) from English to Polish. I have also worked as an English-Polish translator for some of the largest and most renowned translation agencies in Poland and in the world.

See also